Fembots, Latex, Haraway and Hayles

November 25th, 2009 - 



Haraway, D. (2000). A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late 20th Century. in D Bell and A Kennedy, The Cybercultures Reader. Routledge.

Hayles, N.K. (1999). Toward embodied virtuality, chapter 1 of How we became posthuman: virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature and informatics. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. pp1-25

I’ve been rather quiet of late – this last two weeks – partially because Modern Warfare 2 arrived (disrupting nearly everything in my life) but largely because (and I have to be honest here) I found the Harway and Hayles readings quite alienating. As I’ve said before on this course, I struggle badly with certain types of language used by academics in this field and have wondered if that language and those accompanying narrative structures wouldn’t be worthy of a mini-ethnography itself.

Going back to Hine’s assertion that the job of the virtual ethnographer is to discover how our informants decide on the ‘authenticity’ of something, I can’t help but (somewhat snidely) think  that for many in this field ‘authenticity’ seems to be facilitated by use of an elitist, hyper-real vocabulary. Whilst such pointedly playful language is perhaps part of the point which Haraway and Hayles are trying to make, there were moments when (with Haraway in particular) some of the writing seemed like an exercise in linguistic masturabtion. Although, I’m aware that that probably says more about me than it does about Professor Haraway.

All of that said, I appreciate that such things shouldn’t discourage me from course participation, but rather spur me on to try to form a greater understanding. To that end, I’ll try to work my way through the five discussion questions which Sian and Jen posed to help us work through these readings.

1. What is the difference between being a cyborg and being posthuman?

The short answer: I really don’t know. But some ideas did slosh around in my head whilst reading these pieces: perhaps Haraway’s cyborg is a celebration of the fusion of man and machine, a position which revels in the ambiguity caused by the union of organic and artificial. By contrast, Hayles’ identification of the narrative of ‘the posthuman’ seems to be something else – where the materiality of the human condition seems to be considered a design flaw of evolution; something which we may soon be in a position to rectify with unspecified, unknown technologies which allow human consciousness (now reduced to a mere mathematical equation for the storage of information) to be ‘downloaded’ and ‘uploaded’ into another physical host.

My first thoughts ran to Warren Ellis‘ Spider Jerusalem stories (the Transmetropolitan series), in which one of the stories showcases a future technology where humans download themselves into a cloud of particles – unshackling themselves from the limits of their bodies. Naturally, I also found myself thinking of James Cameron’s forthcoming ‘Avatar‘ – in which a wheelchair-bound war veteran is offered the chance to download into the engineered body of an alien (an eight-foot smurf by the looks of it) in order to… oh, who cares why? The whole thing seems an excuse to showcase some nifty new 3D technology, but the same notion of humans as ‘downloadable content’ seems to pervade here – as though corporeal existence is simply an irrelevance and we are destined to be reduced to nothing more than a DNA driven RSS feed.

2. Is our thinking about – and beyond – cyberculture still too structured by the kinds of binaries Haraway critiques (promise/threat, for example, or utopia/dystopia)? How does Haraway’s cyborg myth disrupt these?

Again, I just don’t know. I do certainly see some of the binaries which the questions suggests in operation every day: debates around ‘real’ friends and ‘online friends’, virtual and real, actual and imaginary, corporeal and data-based information and the endless online firestorm over authentication of information as ‘real’ or ‘false’ (see Wikipedias’ ever-present problems).

But, speaking with friends, family and colleagues I think that the ‘utopian/dystopian’ binary of the web is rather reductive. People who have serious grievances with social networks like Facebook (over issues of authenticity of interaction, stalking, bullying and privacy) are still using it – no matter how much they may profess they dislike it. If their view of such technologies and the resulting interactions were that dystopian, I don’t believe they would engage as they do.

I’m not all that sure that Haraways’ Cyborg does actually disrupt these binaries all that much. I know that it’s hardly scientific, but I find myself looking (again) at the narratives, stereotypes and presentations of cyborgs within contemporary science-fiction and feel that not all that much has changed. Star Trek: Voyager’s latex-clad, baloon-breasted ‘Seven of Nine’ character seemed like nothing more than a fairly routine geek-boy fantasy – all curves, doe-eyed, kittenish misunderstandings about sexuality, arched eyebrows and the ever-present threat of repressed sexual desire exploding out of its spandex jumpsuit to consume the nearest unsuspecting male crew member. Although not a cyborg per-se, the next Star Trek show (Enterprise) replicated the formula with the charecter T’Pol – a similarly Lara Croft-shaped Vulcan crew-member, whose detached, unemotional behaviour made her seem like nothing more than ‘Seven of Nine 2.0′.

A more recent example might be Summer Glau’s portrayal of a female Terminator in ‘The Sarah Connor Chronicles’ (pictured above) – a behaviourally submissive, lethally dangerous killerbot sent through time to protect the male hero, whose duties seem to involve brutally murdering people whilst looking sexually suggestive and wanton. It’s not the first time Glau has done this either – her portrayal of River Tam in the fan-favourite ‘Firefly’ was remarkably similar in places:  a precociously talented young woman, fiddled with by nefarious government  scientists whose intention was to use technology to turn her into a lethal killing machine – placing a murdering automata in the body of a hot teenage girl. And let’s not stop there – Joss Whedon’s latest offering, The Dollhouse, sees an array of interchangeable models posing as empty-headed government assasins – their minds a series of blank slates awaiting downloading of new orders to murder assorted bods whilst looking like they’re posing for the cover of Vanity Fair.

If Haraways’ cyborg was an attempt to break-down standard male-authored sexual fantasies, gender narratives and older, more rigid binary constructions of sexuality, it has been, in the field of mainstream sci-fi anyway, a manifest failure.

3. Is Cartesian mind/body dualism, as Hayles argues of posthuman embodiment (p5), the ultimate opposition that structures all of our debates about subjectivity and online identity?

I’m not that convinced that the Cartesian duality referred to in the question is the ultimate opposition, but it is one which I see debated and enacted almost every day. The seeming paranoia which sat at the heart of James Harkins’ ‘Cyburbia’ seemed to stem from the linking of human beings to a ‘feedback loop’ – in which virtual comunication becomes an exercise as addictive as the most powerful drug, leading to the illusion of ‘friendship’, authenticity and meaningful interaction. Social networking’s detractors, it seems, suggest that there is an inherent artificiality about such interactions – that the lack of embodied discourse renders the interactions trivial, meaningless and devoid of substance. ‘Friends’ in Facebook, this narrative suggests, are not real friends at all. But why? Because data sent down a optic cable cannot carry the same meaning, the same nuance and same ‘authenticity’ as an exchage of data between two people in the same room.

4. What other connections might there be between cyborg theory and the pragmatics of online pedagogy and course design?

Placeholder answer: I don’t know. Sorry! I appreciate that this is probably the most crucial of the five questions, and a short answer declaring my ignorance is less than ideal, but I’m being as honest as I can. I’ve just failed to see the obvious connection between these readings and the design of e-learning materials. And I’d very much like to know what they are.

5. Do cyborgs really resist the structure of sex/gender, as Haraway claims?

In short, no. I don’t think that they do. I shan’t repeat my earlier assertions about female cyborgs in current sci-fi shows except to say that it seems as though many are merely play-things for male writers – blank slates upon which rating-gathering, hyper-sexualised, yet emotionally dead female archtypes are projected. Rather than resisting, usurping or inverting structures of gender, it would seem that cyborgs perpetuate certain archetypal fantasies, and may, in fact, lead to even more stereotyped depictions of gender and sexuality – a body without a brain, a set of curves to be observed without guilt or conscience because, after all, she’s ‘only a machine’.

2 Responses to “Fembots, Latex, Haraway and Hayles”

  1. Sarah Payne says:

    Hi Damien

    Some interesting answers for the discussion questions. Like yours, many of my answers began, “I am not sure…”

    I was especially interested in your answer to Q5 “Do cyborgs really resist the structure of sex/gender, as Haraway claims?” which I blogged on recently:


    I reached the same conclusion that you did – cyborgs are more likely to look like sexual fantasies because that is how they are already portrayed in popular culture. Because they appear that way, they WILL appear that way!

  2. Hey Sarah. I’d seen your blog yesterday and meant to comment but was rushing somewhere!

    I suppose I could have also focussed on other cyborg representations in sci-fi – notably the depiction of The Borg as they first appeared in Star Trek – as credibly scary space villians. It’s intersting though – as the ratings dived and the idea of the Borg had been quite played out we suddenly get two sexy Borg women – the Borg Queen (who seduces Data by grafting some skin on to his arm…) and Seven of Nine – a Delta Quadrant Barbie doll.

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